James Edward Hervey MacDonald was born May 12, 1873 in Durham (England). In 1887, at the age of 14, Macdonald moved with his family to Hamilton (Canada). In 1889 they moved again to Toronto, where he studied commercial art and became active in the Toronto Art Student League. In November 1911, MacDonald exhibited sketches at the Arts and Letters club. this was an important step, as the exhibit brought him to the attention of Lawren Harris. He won acclaim in 1912 for his role in an exhibition at the Ottawa Society of Artists. In January 1913 he traveled to Buffalo, New York, where he found in an exhibit of Scandinavian Impressionist paintings an uninhibited approach to northern wilderness that could be adopted by Canadian painters. By that year other Torontonian commercial artists also interested in the potential of original Canadian expression were beginning to congregate around him and Harris. Later that spring MacDonald wrote to A. Y. Jackson inviting him to come to Toronto, which he did in May.
In March of 1916 Macdonald exhibited The Tangled Garden at the OSA to the derision of art critics. It was a fairly conventional post-impressionistic painting of sunflowers, one that has much in common with Van Gogh's treatment of the subject from nearly forty years before, but Canadian critics accustomed to the smooth blending and muted tones of Canadian academic art in the style of the Canadian Art Club were taken aback by the brightness and intensity of the colors. "An incoherent mass of color," wrote an anonymous reviewer for the Toronto Star. Hostile art critics thereafter singled out MacDonald for attacks in the press.
In Autumn 1918, MacDonald travelled to Algoma in a specially outfitted railroad car that functioned as a mobile studio. He would follow this routine for the next several Autumns. From the car he did some of his most acclaimed paintings, including The Solemn Land of 1920.
MacDonald traveled to the Rockies every summer beginning in 1924; mountainous landscapes dominate his later work. By this time he had become somewhat alienated from the rest of the Group of Seven, as many of the younger members were beginning to paint in a more abstract manner. From 1928 until his death MacDonald served as the Principal of the Ontario College of Art, and painted with less frequency and less consistent success.
James Edward Hervey MacDonald died November 26, 1932.